Friday, February 25, 2011

Lorna's Lemon Bars

Remember when I asked you to pray for a beautiful girl named Lorna?  Well, now that beautiful girl named Lorna is living in the Pacific Northwest and she comes to my house for dinner a lot.  She has been dutifully eating anything I put in front of her, and despite my encouragement to request specific foods she always says she likes anything I make.  That's all very flattering and everything, but the only thing more fun than making good food for someone is to make good food that they specifically asked for, by name.  I got very excited last week when Lorna asked if I ever made lemon bars.
"Not recently," I replied, "but I do now."

I then proceeded to research all the lemon bar recipes I'd ever tried and thought about what I had liked about each of them.  I usually have similar criticisms of most lemon bar recipes which are, in no particular order:
-inefficient use of lemon product; why call for the juice but not the zest?  Flavor opportunity FAIL
-gooey filling; lemon bars should not have to be eaten with a spoon
-large amounts of flour in the filling; structure cop-out
-too much sugar in the crust; I like a sweet-and-salty contrast.  It is the beauty of good lemon bars.

So imagine my delight when, on the very day Lorna was coming over for dinner, Dave Lebovitz posted a recipe for Whole Lemon Bars.  A whole lemon cut up and tossed into the food processor?  These were going to be lemony and great.  I made them right away and as soon as they were cool, bit into one.  For the first three seconds I was all "Oh-man-these-are-so-freaking-good-and-lemony-and-- bitter.  Really bitter."  I thought maybe I'd just gotten a really pithy bite, so I tried another.  And another.  Every time, that burning bitterness at the back of my throat.  I was so disappointed I almost wept.  These lemon bars were so incredibly close to perfection, but I couldn't feed them to Lorna. 

The only thing more satisfying than finding a perfect recipe for something is finding a nearly-perfect recipe for something and improving on it.  Good food+ego boost.  Win win.  Dave's crust is light, crumbly perfection and the texture of the filling is perfect; the cut bars don't ooze at all, but they're not gummy.

I didn't really change these much.  I love the simplicity of using melted butter for the crust(Dave's idea) and the addition of vanilla(also Dave's idea); it contributes such a subtle loveliness to the flavor profile.  Also, while I almost always approve of using additional butter in just about anything, when I made the second batch I left the butter out of the filling to no ill effect.  I also left out the additional lemon juice, since I love the idea of using a whole lemon and just a whole lemon.  Something in me objects to partially-used lemon carcasses lying around my fridge.  I also wanted a lemon bar recipe that was un-fussy and would produce a straightforward, uncomplicated sort of lemon bar, the low-maintenance kind that says "My only purpose in life is to provide a few moments of unbridled pleasure."  The geisha of lemon bars.  There was perhaps a line somewhere back there that I've crossed, but it's too late now; the lemon bars have gone to my head. Finally, I fixed one tiny last flaw: I doubled the quantities.  If you are having only a small party or want to impose an admirable amount of self-control, simply halve the batch.  I can't tell you how long any leftovers will last, since they're always gone by the next day.

Lorna's Lemon Bars
Adapted from Dave Lebovitz

For the crust
2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
2 cubes melted butter
1 tsp. vanilla
1/2 tsp. salt(increase to a full tsp. if using unsalted butter)

For the topping
2 whole lemons
2 cups sugar
6 eggs
2 TB + 2 tsp. cornstarch
1/2 tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 350 and line a 9x13(!) pan with foil.
Melt the butter in a medium-sized, microwave-proof bowl.  Add the 1/2 cup of sugar, the vanilla and salt, and stir to combine.  Add the flour and stir until just combined.  Press evening into the bottom of the pan, making sure that the crust comes all the way to the edges.  You don't need to build the crust up along the sides; the filling can be depended on to stay put.  Bake the crust on 350 for 20-25 minutes, until golden on top.

While the crust is baking, prepare the filling.  Zest the two lemons, then slice off the pith(the white foamy stuff).  Cut the flesh into chunks and put them into a food processor fitted with a metal blade.  Add the sugar and the zest and process until the chunks of lemon are very finely chopped, about 30 seconds.  Add the cornstarch and salt and process for 5 seconds.  Add the eggs one at a time, processing briefly after each addition.  Don't process excessively after the last egg has been added or you'll incorporate too much air into the filling and it will bake with a lot of bubbles in it.

When the crust is baked and still hot, pour the filling on top, reduce the oven temperature to 300 and bake until the filling is just set, 20-25 minutes.  I found when I baked the larger batch that the filling was done closer to the 20 minute mark.  Let cool in the pan for about 15 minutes, then lift the bars out using the foil and cool completely on a rack.  Dust with powdered sugar and cut into squares.

Serve them to the loveliest girl in the world.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


One of the best laughs I've had in a long time, via Suburban Matron.  I'm pretty sure the cure to any future grumpiness on my part lies in watching this music video.

I have a soup recipe to write up and post, but I'm taking things slow as we're all recovering from the stomach flu.  It got all four of us, but thankfully at slightly different times so there was always at least one functioning parent to clean up the barf.  We're all well again and the boys are playing outside, but no one is much interested in food.  I'm not sure what to do with myself in this condition; it weirds me out to lack interest in food.  Who am I?  Which way is up?  Who is running this crazy universe anyway? 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Just For Fun

Justice may be blind, but freedom is evidently naked.  And headless.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What a Man Wants

This post could alternately be titled, 'How to Take Most of the Convenience Out of a Crock Pot.' I'll admit it; I've long been skeptical of crock pots. I think this is because I've never really had a positive experience with the contents of one before. Usually I'd run into one at some really cool homeschooler potluck, and it would contain something with a thick sauce, maybe something cheesy with pools of grease floating on the top, and hunks of things I couldn't identify which may or may not have been meat. It could have been dog food. You never can tell with crock pots.
So I was less than thrilled when my dad gave me one for Christmas a few years ago. I thanked him and then stuck it, still in the box, in the garage where it sat for a few years. I think part of me was afraid that if I opened it, I would actually find a meal that had been made with canned condensed soup in there. I loathe canned condensed soup, and while I can see that putting some hunks of animal flesh and some highly processed ingredients into a warm environment is a good way to get consistently moist bites of animal flesh covered in condensed soup, I can also see that it's a good way to get very little flavor out of one's food. So I decided to fix that.
A few years ago, I had an amazing pork shoulder that a friend had slow-roasted in the oven at 250 degrees for about twelve hours. I'd never roasted pork shoulder before, and that one meal opened my eyes to some amazing possibilities. It occurred to me that if the goal was to maintain a low temperature for a prolonged period of time, a crock pot might be the ideal thing. Who knew?
With a thrilling realization that I didn't have to use condensed soup if I didn't want to, I pulled out the crock pot and got to work. First I bought a lovely pork shoulder from PCC, rubbed it all over with salt, and browned it in a hot, hot pan(though I have since purchased an amazing stainless steel pan that browns SO much better) and then tossed a whole chopped onion into the rendered fat. When you make this, pay very careful attention to this part. Not because it's hard, but because it's kind of miraculous. I'm firmly convinced that there are few things in this world that smell better than onions meeting hot pork fat. It's such a powerful and intoxicating combination that I'm pretty sure it's where babies come from, no matter what biology has to say on the matter.
When the onions have had some time to pick up some color, I add a lot of garlic and herbs.
Then I deglaze the pan with some vinegar and add what I guess could be called my version of canned condensed soup: apricot jam. I let it simmer a few minutes until all the ingredients have melded together to form an incredibly delicious sauce, then pour it over the seared pork shoulder which has been waiting patiently in the pre-warmed crock pot.
If, like me, you're new to the wonders of the crock pot, you might be concerned over the apparent lack of juice at this stage. Fear not. Put the lid on and walk away, preferably for several hours. The longer the better, and if you can find a way to actually leave your house and fill your lungs with air from the woods it would be ideal. Hauling branches while your husband builds a house works well too. That way, when you walk back into your house you will go weak in the knees from the warm succulence that now perfumes your entire house. Meat perfume. It's better than it sounds.
I've served this roast with a lot of different things, but I really like the taste of an orange, starchy vegetable with it such as butternut squash or sweet potatoes. In the first picture I paired it with roasted butternut squash(roasted in the oven, which is available thanks to the crock pot) and sauteed kale. It was delicious, but a bit rich. Now I try to serve it with something starchy and then balance it with something light and green, like a simple arugula salad with lemon vinaigrette.

Slow-Roasted Pork Shoulder
1 boneless pork shoulder, 4-8 pounds
1 white or yellow onion, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
1 TB fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
2 TB herbes de Provence
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup apricot jam
salt and pepper

First, turn on your empty crock pot. We don't want the meat to cool down after we transfer it from the hot frying pan.
Next, heat a pan to medium-high and drizzle a good amount of oil(olive, vegetable, or canola) into the pan. While the oil heats, give the pork shoulder a good rub-down with salt on all sides, then sear each side in the hot oil until golden brown. Transfer to the warm crock pot(low if you have 6-8 hours before eating, high if you have 4 hours).
To the hot frying pan, add the chopped onion. Try not to swoon too much over the smell, unless you have a secure counter to hang onto. Swooning over hot animal fat can be dangerous. Don't stir the onions too much; let them sit in the pan, undisturbed, for at least four minutes. Stir them up so the other side gets a little attention, then leave them alone again.
When the onions have some color, add the rosemary and herbes de Provence. After about a minute, add the garlic and reduce the heat to medium(don't ever, ever burn garlic).
After a mere 30 seconds, add the red wine vinegar making sure to scrape up all the lovely browned bits from the bottom of the pan.
Add the apricot jam and stir until the jam has melted into the onion mixture.
Pour the entire contents of the pan over the pork shoulder, add salt and pepper, and put the lid on. Now go about your day as you please, and every once in a while remind yourself that while you're felling trees, raising the wall of a house or maybe just reading a book, that dinner is cooking without any help from you. Allow yourself a satisfied chuckle. The whole process takes less than half an hour of work upfront, and while it's slightly more complicated than tossing high-sodium food products into the crock-pot I hope you'll agree that the results are worth it. The texture of the meat is softly seductive, the flavors of the sauce rich and developed because of the bit with the frying pan. The final result doesn't really taste anything like red wine vinegar or apricots, but like something that has combined in such a way that it becomes more than just the sum of its parts. Much the same way that a baby doesn't resemble separate gametes, but a new thing entirely.
Just before eating, carefully spoon off(and discard) most of the fat from the surface of the now-abundant juices, the ones that seem to have appeared magically from nowhere. If the juice seems thin, ladel it into a sauce pan and simmer over low heat until reduced to your satisfaction. This step isn't necessary, but if the whole process has seemed a little too easy and you feel the need to complicate things a bit, do it. You won't be sorry. Serve to a hungry man you love, and when your five year-old asks you where babies come from answer with confidence, "From the crock pot."